McGrane: Recognition of Dutcher's Deeds Long Overdue

April 19, 2017


By Mick McGrane, Senior Writer

Steve Fisher was fond of referring to Juwan Howard as his "Rock of Gibraltar," the one player who could always steady the ship when Michigan's "Fab Five" wandered into stormy seas.

As pensive as he was productive, Howard was never one to waste words, even when the subject involved the transition of Michigan's head coaching duties from Fisher to first-year assistant coach Brian Ellerbe.

And the obvious slight of another Wolverines assistant, Brian Dutcher.

"Chris Webber and I both went public with it," Howard once told me. "Dutch should have been the one to get that job and everybody knew it.

"Look what's happened at San Diego State. It was a forgotten program and it took them just three years to get to the (NCAA) tournament. That's incredible, and it's a reflection on what a great coaching staff they have.

"As long as Dutch and Coach Fisher are involved, they're going to get it done. Those guys are inseparable, kind of like Starsky and Hutch."

With one of them about to go solo piloting the red Gran Torino.

One week after Fisher announced he was retiring after 18 years as the head coach at SDSU, the chase scenes involving the pursuit of recruits and the stunts of turning two- and three-star players into pros now belongs to Dutcher. For 28 years they sat side-by-side, the unspoken thoughts of one being intercepted by the other, a two-headed think tank that hoisted the Aztecs from gutter to grandeur.

How inseparable? One season after serving under Ellerbe, whose hiring a year earlier had ironically included Dutcher playing an instrumental role, Dutcher shelved his coaching career, returning to his native Minnesota to take a position with his father Jim's investment firm. Starsky without Hutch wasn't happening.

"When the job came open (at Michigan), the players really campaigned to get me the head job," Dutcher later told me. "They wanted some continuity going into their senior year. They didn't want someone completely new coming in and running a whole new system. The seniors had invested three years of their lives sustaining the strength of the program.

"I didn't want it to be a situation where people were saying, 'Ellerbe got the job, so Dutcher's leaving.' It would have been selfish on my part to make it sour grapes. But after that year, after being bypassed for the head job a year earlier, there was really no reason for me to stay."

He wasn't long for the investment business, either. With the basketball bug biting anew, Dutcher went to work as a regional scout for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, whose assistant coach at the time happened to be a fellow named Steve Fisher.

A year later, the Starsky and Hutch reunion tour was in full swing, this time at a school that had suffered through 13 losing seasons in the previous 14 years. Since then, Dutcher, the 15th head coach in SDSU history, has helped lead the Aztecs to the postseason 13 times, including eight trips to the NCAA tournament while pocketing 10 Mountain West titles and recording 12 seasons of at least 20 wins.

It's been a run that since 2008-09 has included a pair of NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and seven seasons of at least 25 victories, with seven MW titles (five regular season, two tournament).

The venerable Lou Henson, who gave Dutcher his first collegiate job as a graduate assistant at Illinois, said it was obvious from the start that Dutcher had an inherent knowledge of the game passed down from his father, who before becoming a financial advisor spent 20 years as a college basketball coach, the final 11 as head coach at Minnesota.

"Brian has always had such a great feel for the game of basketball," Henson once said of Dutcher, whose time at Illinois included a Big Ten title, two Sweet 16 appearances and a regional final. "He really has the total package, and whatever school gets him as a head coach someday, if that's what he decides to do, is going to get an outstanding person. He's an excellent recruiter and a super coach on the floor."

One who no longer need concern himself with being bypassed, as then-Michigan athletic director Tom Goss did 20 years ago. Goss lasted 29 months in Ann Arbor; Dutcher is a season removed from being at SDSU for a fifth of a century.

And more than a bit anxious to roll up his sleeves.

"Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program," said Dutcher, who in addition to spearheading the recruiting efforts behind Michigan's "Fab Five" has since helped secure commitments at SDSU from the likes of Brandon Heath, Kawhi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin and Xavier Thames. "Now I move over from putting (recruits) in front of the closer (Fisher) to becoming the closer myself. I have to take all of the hard work that we've done and sit in front of the prospect and sell them on (SDSU) being the best choice among many great choices. Right now, you have kids being recruited by UCLA, USC, Gonzaga, and I have to go out and convince an 18-year-old that this is where he wants to spend the next four years of his life.

"I think I've always been a pretty good salesman, because what I'm selling is great and I believe in what I'm selling. I believe in this university and I believe in this basketball program. I don't have to create stories to get players to come here. Like Coach (Fisher) has always said, 'We don't have to get down on kneepads to recruit here.' This is a school of choice. This is a desirable school. And this is a school that will continue to attract great players."

Players who can rest assured that this particular baton passing doesn't involve decimation of staff or interruption of the desired goal. Fisher and Dutcher didn't spend close to 30 years together without putting family first, though the idea of snipping a few nets along the way has ranked an awfully close second.

"I think one of my greatest strengths as an assistant coach was being able to play off of the head coach," said Dutcher, who has served as the team's associate head coach/head coach in waiting the past six years. "That's what assistant coaches do. Are you good cop, are you bad cop? That's the dynamics of the staff. Well, now I'm top cop. That responsibility rests at my desk.

"I know my role now. It's to be a father figure, it's to give guidance to our players, on the court as well as socially and academically. It's to monitor this program and take care of this gem of San Diego, to make sure that it stays that way.

"It's funny to think about now, but when I first started recruiting, I was almost the same age as the players. We'd talk about music and girls. Now I'm almost as old as their grandparents. But I'm ready for this chapter. I'm ready for this role."

Even if it means playing Starsky without Hutch.

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